Pope Francis has introduced a surprising theme during an event dedicated to inspiring young people: He has repeatedly praised the elderly as valued contributors to the church's future.
Francis raised the topic Monday on the plane taking him to Brazil, in brief remarks to reporters meant to set the tone for World Youth Day. He returned to the issue in an emotional meeting Thursday with thousands of young pilgrims from his native Argentina, calling younger and older Catholics "two poles of humanity" who had much to offer each other. Speaking Friday from the balcony of the archbishop's residence in Rio de Janeiro, he called relationships across generations a "treasure" and urged young people to honor their grandparents.
"A people has a future if it goes forward with both elements: with the young, who have the strength, and things move forward because they do the carrying; and with the elderly because they are the ones who give life's wisdom," Francis said, en route to Rio. "We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us."
Scholars said they didn't expect to hear about the elderly during the week of events, but saw the issue as an extension of his focus on social justice, embracing the outcast and valuing human life, which Francis says society often treats as something disposable. But his focus on the aged also may be motivated by a recognition that the world is getting older.
"I'm very surprised by the emphasis he has on this surprised in a good way," said Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at Catholic University of America in Washington. "He's talking in this sense about a common sense of human dignity of all people. This is a foundation of Catholic social teaching."
As a cardinal, Francis showed special concern for the elderly. In the book, "On Heaven and Earth," a religious discussion between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the future pope said inattention to the health care and prescription needs of older people amounted to "covert euthanasia."
Old people have much wisdom to offer, he said, but "end up being stored away in a nursing home like an overcoat that is hung up in the closet during the summer."
He has shown a gentle deference to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and is also deeply devoted to the memory of his paternal grandmother, whom he credits for teaching him about Jesus and the church. He keeps a note she sent to her grandchildren in his breviary recommending they pray and "look to Mary at the feet of the cross," for comfort in times of despair.
Last May, addressing a crowd in St. Peter's Square, he recalled how his grandmother took him to a Good Friday procession as a boy, and when a depiction of the dead Christ passed by, said, "Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise."
"This was how I received my first Christian proclamation, from this very woman, from my grandmother!" he said.
William Portier, a theologian at the University of Dayton, a Marianist school in Ohio, viewed Francis' elderly focus as part of the pope's "radical inclusivity."
The pope told the Argentine pilgrims, "We're in the presence of a philosophy and practice of exclusion of the two poles of humanity. Exclusion of the old people, of course, because they aren't cared for. And exclusion of the youths without work."
"This civilization excludes those on both ends. You have to give them value," Francis said. "The youth need to serve. Fight for these values. And the old people will spread them."
Francis, along with other world leaders, has additional motivation for this concern.
By 2050, the number of people age 60 and over is predicted to exceed the number of people under age 15 worldwide for the first time in history, according to a U.N. report for the World Assembly on Aging. This change is occurring at different rates in more industrialized and less developed countries, but is expected to be irreversible, with major consequences for economic growth, housing, health care and more. Leaders across faith traditions are looking at the potential impact on their congregations and ministries.
Also, within the United States and in other Western countries, older Catholics are more active in the church and attend Mass at higher rates than young people.
In his comments Friday, the pope emphasized sharing faith among the generations. Friday was the feast day of the Virgin Mary's parents, the grandparents of Jesus, Saints Joachim and Anne. It was also Grandparent's Day in many countries.
"How important grandparents are for family life, for passing on the human and religious heritage which is so essential for each and every society!" he said.
The pope could also be worried about himself, Portier said. Francis is 76 years old.
In "On Heaven and Earth," he acknowledged he had become a senior citizen and said he hoped to be "like a vintage wine, not one gone sour."
"The elderly are called to peace and tranquility," he said. "I ask for that grace for myself."